AURORA | There’s power in someone having a platform to tell their own story. There’s the power to create one’s identity, a power to fight any misconceptions and a power to connect with the person listening to the story.
A story isn’t just a way for someone to create an identity, it can create a community. It’s harder to lump someone into a faceless group when their story is known, harder to allow preconceived notions and biases dictate how that person is treated.
That idea that a story can create a community is the idea behind Aurora Public Schools’ new project “A Story.” The goal of “A Story,” which is a joint venture between the APS Aurora AWARE project and Stories Without Borders, is to give a platform to the diverse student population in the district and help begin to fight the stereotype of what it means to be a student from Aurora.
“One of the big discrepancies we have in APS is in the media. When they’re talking about something, it’s always ‘a school in Aurora,’” said Kim Kaspar, AWARE project coordinator. “Whether it’s an APS School or a Cherry Creek school, when there’s something negative, it’s always ‘a school in Aurora.’ What people think about our students and our community isn’t an accurate representation of the brilliant students we have here. … Our goal is really is we want our students to be able to tell their truths, tell their stories in a framework of mental wellness and resilience.”
The project, which launched its website aurorastory.org on Nov. 1, is focused on Aurora Central High School students but the hope is that other schools in the district can use the platform eventually. For the first project, nine students who came to the country as refugees tell what liberty means to them.
Solange Bizoza, 17, is originally from Congo but fled the country of her birth when she was 12 due to a bloody civil war. While she and her family struggled as they went from country to country before being able to immigrate to the United States, Bizoza said her story isn’t an unhappy one. And she said the more people who know the stories of refugees in the community, the more acceptance she and others will find.
“They cannot discriminate against us, they can take us as other people,” Bizoza said. “They can treat you well.”
Haneen Aljamal, 16, whose family is from Palestine but who was born in Iraq when her family fled fighting there, said she hoped her story and the stories of other refugees would begin to fight the prejudices and racism that exists.
“There are people who are racist, maybe (knowing our story) will stop that,” Aljamal said.
To help the students find their voice and tell their story, Jovan Mays, the former Poet Laureate of Aurora and director of Your Writing Counts, led workshops with the students involved in the project. Through writing prompts and leading questions to bring out their stories, Mays and Kati Van Sicklen, who teaches English development language classes at Central High School, worked with the group involved in the first group of stories on the website.
Mays and Van Sicklen both said working with the students was an emotional experience, not just because of the journeys each student had gone through before getting into that classroom, but because of how resilient, strong and positive the kids are after it all.
“Everytime I see Kati, we laugh because of how often we cry. I feel like I’m thrown back in my chair often. I’m enormously humbled by the experience and then for me by knowing I am in some sort of driver seat to bring their story to a larger audience,” Mays said.
Van Sicklen said she hoped the videos and stories on the website not only connect the greater Aurora community to the students at Central High School, but also connected the students to one another.
“Our hope is that we can bridge relationships in our school. If you go to our cafeteria during lunch, it’s very segregated. Our refugee students sit by themselves, they don’t really interact with others,” Van Sicklen said.
But telling their stories can help bridge those gaps. Van Sicklen said she has shared some of the stories of the refugee students with her other classes, and the impact has been immediate.
“They thought they were really powerful. They didn’t know the stories those students sitting next to them have gone through,” Van Sicklen said.